Words: Desiree Melancon
For some, rail jams might be considered a dying event. What was once a staple showdown where the industry’s best would duke it out, sometimes battling for cash prizes of up to $50,000, has dwindled to a handful of local events attempting to keep the dream alive. Usually very few women are invited, and payouts are drastically skewed with the ladies being offered a small fraction of the pot. The Slush Game of Big S.N.O.W. presented by Dakine, inspired by any skateboarder’s favorite faceoff, S.K.A.T.E., is a revamp of the outdated rail jam format, bracketing riders into head-to-head elimination rounds, set to battle it out for bragging rights, and a piece of the ten-thousand-dollar purse. It’s also important to note that an equal number of men and women were invited, with equal prize money for both categories. This should be the new standard, implemented for all events industry wide.
With a summer high of 93 degrees in East Rutherford, New Jersey, 32 of snowboarding’s “most esteemed rail riders” were kitted out in shorts, slip-ons, and tees, but seen toting backpacks and duffels filled with boots, gloves, and outerwear. Upon stepping onto the slope, many competitors began to worry that they would freeze from neglecting to bring thicker jackets to brave the steady, dry temperature of 28 degrees inside of the Big SNOW American Dream dome, the only indoor snow park in the United States. The winter conditions in August led to a chilly system shock, but as predicted, things heated up quickly.
Friday, August 13, set the stage for everyone to warm up on the setup. Riders and observers alike began predicting who could potentially win as it became obvious who had been riding on the Mt. Hood glacier during the months leading up to the event. Ari Marrone, Isabella Gomez, and Jaylen Hansen had no problem destroying the down-flat-down, while Nora Beck was seen effortlessly throwing controlled cab 270s onto the down bar. Miles Fallon and Zeb Powell stood out hotlapping the setup, flowing through their seemingly endless bag of tricks. Yet it was difficult to imagine any underdog knocking out seasoned pros such as Jill Perkins, Madison Blackley, Sam Taxwood, or Forest Bailey. To close the day of practice, names were drawn from a hat and the rider who was chosen, picked their slot and competitor. This might have been the most heated session of the whole event.
The importance of the initial bracket cannot be overlooked. With East Coast legends Lucas Magoon and Johnny O’Connor stepping up to handle the officiating, you would assume the strategy would be to pick someone who didn’t have every trick on lock. But the first chosen, Melissa Riitano, started off by challenging switch front board goddess Alexis Roland. Similarly, Miles Fallon set the tone by choosing Zeb Powell. It became obvious that the initial matchups would instead be friends taking on those that they thought would be the most entertaining. The event would begin the next day at 10 am.
Women’s Round Of 16 Bracket:
Melissa Riitano vs. Alexis Roland, Madison Blackley vs. Brantley Mullins, Nora Beck vs. Danyale Patterson, Isabella Gomez vs. Ari Morrone, Jaylen Hanson vs. Ellie Weiler, Jill Perkins vs. Me (Desiree Melancon), Maggie Leon vs. Savannah Shinske, and Grace Warner vs. Abby Ronca.
Men’s Round Of 16 Bracket:
Miles Fallon vs. Zeb Powell, Benny Milam vs. Cooper Whittier, Mike Liddle vs. Forest Bailey, Jordan Small vs. Luke Winkelmann, Reid Smith vs. Parker Szumowski, Tommy Gesme vs. Ben Bilodeau, Zak Hale vs. Sam Taxwood, and Riley Nickerson vs. Jacob Krugmire.
The first round was the most intense of the entire event. Rather than playing it conservatively and saving their best until the final round, every rider instead put on a show out the gate, throwing their hardest tricks in order to make it through to the quarterfinals. It was absolute insanity, resulting it screaming, laughing, high fives, bailing, and most importantly, extremely close matches. On the women’s side, Brantley Mullins wasn’t a match for Madison Blackley’s switch boardslides, while Nora Beck out-skilled rope queen Danyale Patterson. Isabella Gomez couldn’t keep up with Ari Morrone’s nose press on the kink rail, and underdog Jaylen Hanson, try as she could, was defeated by Colorado up-and-comer Ellie Weiler. Alexis gracefully destroyed Melissa while I tried as hard as I could to give Jill a run for her money, but predictably failed.
Maggie Leon was out maneuvered by Savannah Shinske’s switch 5050s, and maybe the most impressive talent to come out of the event, Gracie Warner, took Abby Ronca down with her very technical and very proper bag of tricks. On the men’s side, Miles and Zeb put on a neck-and-neck show, giving the crowd what they wanted with a massive huck fest, yet Zeb couldn’t deliver on a front 270 on, same way 270 off on the down bar. Midwest tech god Benny Milam had his work cut out for him to best Dust Box’s Cooper Whitter, and managed to do so with a back 1 on switch back 3 off on the down bar. Mike Liddle and Forest Bailey were neck and neck, but Forest’s defeat was inevitable due to a very proper switch nose press on the kink. Food connoisseur Jordan Smalls definitely spiced things up, but ultimately couldn’t conjure the recipe to take out Luke Winklemann, while Reid Smith aggressively spite-boarded his way to a win against longtime friend Parker Szumowski. Style king Tommy Gesme out-fashioned the most fashionable, Ben Bilodeau, and, somehow, Zak Hale managed to win the Lick The Cat fight against Sam Taxwood with a basic bro nose press 180. Finally, Riley Nickerson had no problem moving on to the second round considering Jacob Krugmire was blacked out for three days, although Krugs still managed to get Riley an S.
By the time the second round began, the advancing riders had their work cut out for them. This would turn into a game of endurance, rather than skill. Kicking off the women’s side, Nora took out Madison on a boardslide same-way on the down bar, while Ari respectfully passed the win on to Ellie due to her switch boardslide. Jill Perkins and Alexis Roland were neck and neck but Alexis couldn’t manage to generate the speed needed to match Jill’s gap to boardslide on the flat down and gap to front board on the kink. Heartbreakingly, Grace Warner was steadily taking out Savannah Shinske but had to withdraw unwillingly from the competition due to fatigue and nausea, allowing Savannah to move on.
For the men, Miles and Benny had a very long but balanced match with Miles looking like he would advance, however they arrived at a standstill and decided the next letter would take it, Benny landed a front board pretzel sending Miles to the side lines. Mike Liddle had Luke Winklemann worried, considering what he was throwing down against Forest, but Luke managed to take out Mike with planned out tricks such as a switch back 270 pullback. The highlight of Reid’s game was probably defeating well-respected Tommy Gesme with a switch backlip 270 same-way, and Riley had no issues taking Zak out in what seemed like the beginning of speed issues.
The semi-finals distinguished who was in it for the long haul. Exhaustion had set in, and competitors were itching to get out of the ice box, but it was down to the final four in each category. Savannah managed to get Jill one letter with her switch 5050 but Jill still knocked her out pretty quickly with her consistency. Nora believes Ellie could and should have beaten her, and is excited for Ellie to show up next year to “kick all our asses,” but as it stands, Nora took her out with a front 270 on the down bar. Reid against Riley was very close, with one letter to go for both, but Reid was put to rest with a switch back wheelie on the down bar. Benny bested Luke with a gap to flat cab 270 pullback, but Luke managed to get the best of announcer and Slush magazine staff, Stan Levielle, on a gap to switch back lip to uncontrolled ride out edge catch resulting in Stan’s tooth getting knocked into the roof of his mouth, sending him out of the snow dome in an ambulance needing surgery.
Moving into the finals, competitors were entering into their ninth hour of snowboarding non-stop. One would think that with a stable temperature, snow conditions wouldn’t change, but that was not the case. Due to the over worked snow, speed was no longer widely available and the trick selection had to adapt to consistency. To save time and energy, the finalists decided to cut the W and play their finals as a game of SNO. Although Nora was a fan favorite for the win and had the largest bag of tricks in the rounds leading up to the finals, Jill’s signature backlip and front boards provided her consistency and strength in landing, granting her the win. Similarly for the men, they fought to the bitter end but eventually Benny bested Riley with a back 1 switch back 3 off on the down bar, a cab 270 to the flat of the kink to regular, and a switch backlip pretzel on the down bar. Crowning Jill Perkins and Benny Milam as the Slush Magazine Game of Big S.N.O.W. presented by Dakine champions!
For some this event could be downplayed as an archaic nod to a spectacle well past its prime, but in many ways it could easily be construed as a harbinger of things to come. This is just the third event held by Slush and similarly it’s the third with equal prize money. Next, this competition wasn’t held in Aspen, or Jackson Hole or Alaska or Vail, it was held in the blue collar burg of East Rutherford, New Jersey in a mall on the approach path to Newark Airport. Talk about bringing the spectacle to the people. In fact, it was the first pro caliber snowboard contest to happen east of the Mississippi in over a decade. And lastly, it was held indoors in August while the temps eclipsed 90 degrees outside. Given the impact of climate change, is it really that outlandish to imagine a future when all riding happens indoors in places like Big SNOW American Dream?
Special thanks are due to everyone involved in making the Game Of Big S.N.O.W. presented by Dakine happen including the staff and locals at the venue, supporting sponsors 10 Barrel, Ikon Pass, Tactics, Ikanik Farms, GoPro and Wild Mike’s, the referees Lucas Magoon and Johnny O’Connor, our announcer Stan Leveille and especially the riders who trekked out to New Jersey to do some indoor shredding in the summer!